top of page

S. Crayton: ‘The Sense of Disorder’, Out of Order (University of Cambridge, 2023), pp. 25-43.

The Sense of Disorder



How is it that a piece of music can move us?


What makes something expressive?


Does expression challenge convention?


To what extent is expression subjective?


Can we approach its challenge objectively?


Are there different types of challenges?


What are the limitations of an analytical conception of disorder?


How can we expand our conception of disorder?


What is the difference between sound and act?


Are there structures according to which the act is disordered?


What is a trope?


What is a second-order trope?


What is lost in disorder?


In what way is loss a necessary mechanism of expression?


Does all expression lament?


Does expression have agency?


What is the significance of all of this in a context of composition today?


What are the fundamental structures of meaning in music since the twentieth century?


What is the role of compositional technique within these structures?


What are the social and physical consequences of a composition founded on technique?


In what ways does a composer like Berio differ fundamentally from a composer like Boulez?


Why is this distinction so important?


What are the physical ramifications of this theoretical distinction?


What is the significance of historically-informed performance?


How can the composer synthesise changing musical tastes with over two-hundred years of constancy of the physical relation between performer and instrument?


What is the significance of electro-acoustic music?


What can we learn from Berio (‘Sinfonia’, Chapter 7)?


How can we incorporate the physicality of music into its composition?


What does it mean for music to be “in time”?


What does it mean to listen in time (‘Tendres Plaintes’, Chapter 3), to look in time (‘Sound, Order, and Elitism’, Chapter 1), to think in time (‘The Old Order’, Chapter 4)?


Is form a trope of time?


In what way does Beethoven disorder form (‘kreng and the “Heiliger Dankgesang”, Chapter 5)?


In what way does Messiaen disorder time itself (‘Caged Bird’, Chapter 6)?


At the heart of the chapter is the question of how meaning comes about. The chapter proposes that musical expression is ‘the sense of disorder’ (this is close to Bloom’s ‘breaking of the vessels’), and questions whether there are structures according to which disorder manifests. In other words, is there an order to disorder? In particular, the chapter pursues a conception of disorder that is not limited to its analytical parameters, focussing instead on the disorder of the act, ultimately to present disorder as an active agent of expression, capable of transformation.


Furthermore, the chapter presents loss as a necessary product of expression. Accordingly, the performance of lament (the trope of loss) is considered as a kind of representation of the mechanisms of meaning. This leads to the introduction of “tenderness”, which is presented as a disorder of lament, as well as the trope-of-a-trope, which is at the heart of Chapter 3, ‘Tendres Plaintes’.


An application for this theory is provided by contrasting these poetics to the structures that underlie composition today, whose influence is traced to the early twentieth century. In particular, it is argued that the physical balance between composer and performer is unsettled. The chapter proposes to approach composition from the mediating thread of its physical act, as codified by its notation.


This is a complex chapter which deals with difficult theory. It is crucial to note that the chapter starts from the interest in music as expressive and to be performed. Ultimately, the chapter is an attempt to expand the limited conception of disorder that dominates contemporary practice. It represents an attempt at a poetics that is rooted in the will (as opposed to the sound), constructing its argument from first principles. It serves as much of the theoretical context to the dissertation, as well as situates each chapter according to the theoretical lens of the thesis


Click the icon below the network to view the chapter (this will open a PDF in a new tab).






Berio, L.: ‘The Composer on his Work: Meditation on a Twelve-tone Horse’, Christian Science Monitor (July 1968).


*——— ‘Du geste et de Piazza Carità’, Entretiens avec Rossana Dalmonte (Geneva: Contrechamps, 2010), pp. 157-162; first published in La Musique et ses problèmes contemporains (Paris: Cahiers Renaud-Barrault, 1963).


*——— ‘Note to the Kind Lady of Baltimore’, Electronic Music Review (1965).


*——— Remembering the Future (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).


Berio, L., Dalmonte, R., and Varga, A.: Luciano Berio: Two Interviews, trans. and ed. D. Osmond-Smith (New York and London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1985).


*Bloom, H.: The Anxiety of Influence, 2nd ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); first published OUP, 1973.


*——— ‘The Breaking of Form’, Deconstruction and Criticism (Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1979).


*——— Kabbalah and Criticism (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975).


*——— A Map of Misreading, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 32; first published OUP, 1975.


*de Bolla, P.: Towards Historical Rhetorics (London: Routledge, 1988).


Born, G.: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde (University of California Press, 1995).


de Man, P: Allegories of Reading (Yale University Press, 1979).


Cavell, S.: The Claim of Reason (Oxford University Press, 1979).


Crayton, S.: ‘The Caged Bird Sings’ (University of Cambridge: 2018).


Hollander, J.: The Figure of Echo (University of California Press, 1981).


Kant, I.: Critique of Judgement, ed. N. Walker, trans. J. C. Meredith (Oxford University Press, 2008).

bottom of page